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Lack of support for online learning is a ‘tragic situation’ as we step into another lockdown

Rob May, CEO ABE Global
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Teachers who had been diligently preparing for the new term and hoping for a fresh start have been handed just hours’ notice to hastily ‘onlinify’ learning content. As one distraught teacher put it to me on the eve of another lockdown, they are being forced to “scrabble around” at the last minute to find ways to deliver remote learning.

Building a modern, world-leading education system 

The government has had eight months to convene a strategy for another education lockdown. Like the leader of any well-run organisation, the Secretary of State should have spent that time drilling an air-tight continuity plan. Instead, students and teachers are faced with chaos and uncertainty and are being left to fend for themselves. This is a tragic situation which clearly reinforces that this government has had no interest, or at least no understanding of how to build a modern, world-leading education system.

Dispatching thousands of laptops is a simple and obvious step, but in isolation, this simply shows-up a fundamental lack of understanding about how remote learning is successfully delivered. A recent study by UCL’s Institute of Education estimated that during the first lockdown children spent an average of 2.5 hours per day on schoolwork and over 70% of state school children received no more than one online lesson per day. Germany has been often held-up by Ministers as a model education system but only 10 percent of students have reported a smooth transition to online teaching during the pandemic. The University of Munich has found that time spent on schoolwork halved during COVID-19 from 7.4 hours per day to only 3.6 hours. During the rest of the day, students spent time watching television, gaming and using social media – on their devices!

Clearly, for many students, technology is already widely available 

Clearly, for many students, technology is already widely available, they are just not using it for educational purposes because the platforms and content they are provided with is not engaging enough, usually it has not been designed by learning technologists or content developers who understand how to create ‘habit forming’ learning behaviours. The challenge is not just the technology, or the connectivity, it is the planning, content, constant engagement, and mentoring that makes remote learning effective. Simply throwing-up some PDFs or Powerpoint slides is next to a waste of time.

The government appears to be acting under the delusion that technology-enabled learning has been integrated seamlessly into the state school system. Looking at the dizzying growth of the ed-tech market, it is perhaps easy to understand why they might come to that conclusion. The value of the E-Learning market alone had surpassed $200 billion USD in 2019 and was anticipated to grow at over 8% annually between 2020 and 2026 before the COVID-19 surge in demand. But software is only one component of the virtual learning eco-system and only 2% of the world’s learning activity actually takes place online. Spreading and codifying remote learning practices – for both teachers and students – has not occurred at the level required to provide high-quality learning experiences through a protracted lockdown.

Many schools operate with a ‘lightweight teams’ structure

Different levels of training and confidence among teachers also leads to massive disparities in the distance learning experience. Many schools operate with a ‘lightweight teams’ structure, which means that there is usually a low level of co-ordination between different departments within a school. Changes to the way that the science faculty members set, deliver and assess routine coursework are controlled within the science department, and there is no need to co-ordinate this approach with the English department. This is why during the first lockdown parents and children across the UK had to struggle with different digital learning platforms beamed-out from the same school, making the process even more difficult and dis-engaging.

Technology offers the opportunity for the ‘massification’ of online delivery

Technology offers the opportunity for the ‘massification’ of online delivery, and so it is puzzling that in this time of national emergency, the logistical co-ordination of national online provision has been neglected by the government. Numerous other countries are displaying a better understanding of the ‘total capabilities’ required to deliver remote learning at scale and are pulling away from the U.K.

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Some countries reacted quickly, providing a central government mandate to drive students and teachers towards recognised online learning platforms, with support centres set-up to help that process. In February 2020, the Chinese government instructed a quarter of a billion full-time students to continue studying through Tencent Classroom, resulting in the largest online movement in the history of education. China also prepared the online provision of psycho-social support for children.

That is perhaps easier to pull-off within a system of state-owned enterprises, but in other countries, the co-ordinating response of governments has been more effective. In Argentina, “Seguimos Educando” is a government-backed initiative providing large-scale dissemination of teaching materials and student workbooks alongside online learning and television broadcasts of lessons. In Cambodia, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has partnered with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to provide free online lessons to young students alongside TV programmes and resources made available on the ministry’s Facebook pages.

Sending free digital equipment to students is a helpful start for the most marginalised children, but effective learning is occurring heroically and locally in the U.K., due to the creativity and flexibility of teachers, rather than systematically or at scale. This experience demonstrates that this political administration is not capable of stewarding the long-term radical changes needed to embed and integrate high-quality learning and assessment. Instead, students are once again faced with a lottery of learning experiences.

The long-term effects of lost learning

There will be psychological and behavioural effects of removing students from the protective, social environment of schools and that may be unavoidable during a public health emergency. Hopefully, the government is starting to plan now how best to support the COVID-19 generation in future years. The economic costs could be just as harsh.

It is difficult to reliably measure the future economic impact of school closures but using the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) as a starting point, a loss of one third of a school year represents a potential income loss of up to 4% over the student’s adult working life. In 2018 the average lifetime earnings of men in the U.K. were £643,000, and for women, average lifetime earnings were £380,000. At those present values, a loss of 4% would equate to a loss of £25,720 for men and £15,200 for women.

Today’s COVID-19 generation of students will make up around 30% of the British workforce in 10-15 years’ time. Based on the current learning disruptions they could be a much less skilled and less wealthy workforce. As massive amounts of public debt piles up, the government’s lack of attention to detail is building another major crisis.

Rob May, CEO ABE Global, Examination Body 

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